A story about the secret of life


A successful businessman, who was finding his life empty and lacking meaning, went to a well-known Zen Master, whom he had heard had discovered the secret of life. Anyone in possession of this wisdom would be able to lead a fully happy and meaningful life. The businessman asked the Master if he could reveal his secret. The Master took a piece of paper and wrote down the word “Attention”.

The businessman was confused and asked “I was told that you knew the true secret of life. Is that all?” The Zen Master, then took the paper and wrote “Attention. Attention.” The businessman became irritated and said, “That doesn’t seem profound to me.” In response the Master again took the paper and wrote “Attention. Attention. Attention.” Even more frustrated, the businessman asked, “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?” The Zen Master replied, “Attention means attention.”

The word attention in this story could equally be replaced by the word awareness, both representing an act that is seemingly so simple but has yet proven to be immensely difficult. Attention deficit is not only a trait of persons suffering from ADHD, but the whole western society is suffering from a severe lack of attention. We are at all times connected to everyone else with our smart phones, and these devices may be the biggest obstacle to actually being in the present moment, as they are constantly calling upon us to check out whether something has happened somewhere else.

Could you instead imagine a world where everyone instead was anchored in the present place and moment, paying full attention to their children, their spouses, their friends, their colleagues and other persons passing by, without constantly being somewhere else in their minds. With full awareness in the moment, we would be attentive to the events happening around us, even the things and trends affecting our private lives, jobs and businesses. We would also be able to more easily identify and seize the life opportunities that all the time are passing by our eyes.

With full attention on what we are doing in the present moment, we would  be more effective at work and at home, and not be stressed by things that have happened in the past or may happen in the future. Being mindful of what is happening to us here and now  makes us appreciate and enjoy all the small chores of everyday life. With full attention, even washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom, may give us value in the moment.

The present moment is all that exists, and it is absolute in itself. The past is already behind us and cannot be changed, and the future is not yet here. Therefore, if you  are fully in the moment, past and future can no longer be a source of stress and anxiety. It’s only in the moment we can make a difference. Feelings of anger, sadness, jealousy arising from past events should curiously be investigated, but not allowed to ruin the present. Instead, we should use every moment it comes to be the best we can be with love and compassion.

But attention is not just about the outer world, it applies equally to our inner lives, and to find out who we really are require attentive introspection. Who am I? How do I relate to everything around me? These are fundamental existential questions that we should all ask ourselves from time to time to achieve a higher level of self-awareness.

But this does not come easily. We are hardwired to constantly daydream about past and future, that even being the natural default mode of our brains. This is possible as our attention filters and engrained habits allow us to perform most daily routines tasks in autopilot mode, without any need for attention, allowing our thoughts to be somewhere else.

To be aware of and paying full attention to the present moment in a mindful way is thus difficult. Keeping the focus on here and now requires mental energy, at the same time as it could be deeply relaxing. As with all other practices, also full attention requires determination and practice, but if we learn how to master this skill we may indeed have found the secret of life.

Photo: Pixabay.com – Katerina_Knizakova

svensk_flagga   Detta blogginlägg på svenska

Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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